Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
STIs are sort of like car accidents: No matter how many times we hear about how prevalent or dangerous they are, we manage to convince ourselves that we're somehow exempt. But, researchers have found that the chances of contracting a certain STI are way, way higher than we thought. A study conducted by doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center found that up to 69% of people could have at least one of the 148 known strains of human papilloma virus.
Analyzing the DNA of 103 participants, aged 18 to 80, the research team found that 71 of them had some form of the virus — either in their skin, genitals, gut, or mouth. However, only four subjects were found to have one of the two strains of the virus that is known to lead to cancer. Most of the 148 known strains of HPV remain dormant in the body indefinitely, without causing symptoms. There's no word on the proportion of subjects who were found to carry the strains that lead to genital warts.
While the sample size was admittedly small, the study authors employed cutting-edge genome analysis technology called shotgun sequencing to put together what is being lauded as one of the most exhaustive genetic analyses of its kind. Current diagnostic tests can only detect a fraction of the 148 strains of the virus, which explains why the infection rate found in this study was so much higher than the rate often reported by the CDC (79 million, or just under 25% of Americans).
And, even though most of the subjects had benign forms of the virus, the study's authors point out that doctors still don't understand just how the different strains interact with each other. The next step, they say, is to investigate whether these seemingly harmless strains play any sort of indirect role in the development of cancer in the cervix or mouth. Another next step we'd like to see: more accurate, accessible tests that will tell us whether or not we're actually carrying one of the myriad forms of this (apparently all-too-common) virus.